In this era of celebrity chefs and televised chef competitions like Iron Chef, we know that some people have a gastronomic sense akin to perfect pitch. In The Hundred Foot Journey, the gifted one is Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), member of an Indian restaurant family forced to flee their homeland after political rioters set fire to their restaurant, killing their matriarch. The Kadams wander through Europe seeking a place to settle and open a new restaurant. When the family’s van breaks down in a small town in the south of France, Marguerite, a kindly young local, comes to their rescue. During their wait for repairs to their van, they discover a closed restaurant that is the perfect site for their enterprise. Unfortunately, the location is just one hundred feet from a Michelin starred traditional French restaurant. The family warns of the dangers, but Kadam patriarch Papa (Om Puri) is undeterred.
The reaction of Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), proprietress of the French restaurant, to the Maison Mumbai across the street is predictably hostile. She lobbies the mayor for sanctions against the newcomers, buys up all the produce from the local suppliers and inflames French nationalism in her staff. Papa Kadam fuels the rivalry by responding to her actions with similar tactics, a true mimetic double. The culinary conflict escalates, because, as the movie tagline proclaims, “Competition is the spice of life.”
Secretly Marguerite, rescuer of the Kadams and sous chef for Madame, encourages Hassan’s interest in French cuisine, lending him cookbooks and showing him how to forage for wild produce. Her revelations of the intricacies of gastronomy, Madame’s testing of chefs and the impact of Michelin ratings are a model for Hassan’s desire for success. Passion for French cuisine and each other blossoms. But, when Hassan attempts to ameliorate Papa’s actions by creating a classic French dish and presenting it to Madame, Marguerite’s protégé becomes her rival.
Madame’s chef and his comrades add a new depth to the rivalry by setting fire to the Kadam’s restaurant, injuring Hassan and painting jingoistic graffiti on the Kadam property. Horrified and ashamed of what her competition evoked, Madame breaks the cycle of violence and begins the rapprochement by scrubbing off the graffiti. Her kindness and persistence gradually shift the relationship between restaurants and restaurateurs to one of mutual appreciation and support. She recognizes Hassan’s culinary gifts and hires him to be her chef. Together Madame and Hassan achieve a second Michelin star, launching him into the stratosphere of the French culinary world.
Filmed in the glowing light of the south of France, this movie offers an amuse-bouche to our embattled world.